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A secret life of madness

A respected scholar and USC law professor reveals her journey through the horrors and demons of mental illness. She has schizophrenia.

September 10, 2007|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Dressed in a blue power suit, Elyn Saks addressed a gathering of psychologists here with the quiet demeanor of an intellectual sure of her academic resume: college valedictorian, Oxford scholar, Yale law student, USC legal professor.

But her words were not serene. They evoked nightmares.

Over 30 years, as she forged her career, she wrestled with uncouth visions, violent commands and suicidal impulses, Saks explained to her listeners. In her worst moments, the TV made fun of her, ashtrays danced and walls collapsed. Sure she was a witch, she burned herself as punishment with cigarettes, lighters and electric heaters. She believed she was single-handedly responsible for the deaths of thousands of people. The brains of close associates were taken over by aliens.

Fearful of rejection, she told no one about her inner strife, other than her doctors and closest friends, even as she was hospitalized, force-fed anti-psychotic drugs and lashed to metal gurneys. She became an exhibit, she recalled, a specimen, "a bug impaled on a pin and helpless to escape."

In her gravelly voice, Saks detailed for the psychologists how she became convinced that her former psychotherapist was a monster, how she needed to protect herself. Before one therapy session, Saks went to a hardware store to look at axes.

Still, she feared the therapist would abandon her, Saks told the audience, revealing her thoughts that back then raced toward a plot: I will kidnap her and keep her tied in my closet. I will take good care of her. I will give her food and clothes. She will always be there when I need her to give me psychoanalysis.

She was able to keep most of her delusional episodes private. "I couldn't control what I thought," she said. "But I could usually control what I said."

Saks has schizophrenia, a severe mental disorder often characterized by social isolation, disorganized speech, delusions and hallucinations. She has defied the prediction of a doctor who once said she would never lead an independent life. She has even flourished, thanks to a strict regimen of medication and talk therapy.

Now she wants to dash the myths surrounding an illness that affects 3 million Americans: Schizophrenics aren't all emotionally out of touch, shouting and swiping at gremlins, shut away in hospitals. Like her, some lead productive lives with good friends, loving spouses and precious emotional triumphs.

At 51, Saks says, the time has come to reveal her secret. The San Francisco speech was one of her first major public forays.

Like the story of fellow schizophrenic John Forbes Nash, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and mathematician whose life was portrayed in the book and film "A Beautiful Mind," Saks' life illustrates not only the stresses mental illness places on personal and professional relationships but also how they can be overcome.

The disease emerged when Saks was a child in Miami in the 1960s. There were little quirks: She couldn't leave her bedroom until her shoes were lined up. She slept only after she had arranged her books just so.

She suffered night terrors, sure a murderer lurked outside her window. She read Sylvia Plath's novel, "The Bell Jar," and identified with the protagonist's descent into madness.

One day, at age 16, Saks impulsively fled school in terror. On the five-mile walk home, houses began sending her messages: Look closely. You are special. You are especially bad. Look closely and ye shall find.

Her delusions followed her to Vanderbilt University, where she frightened dorm-mates, quacking like a duck and swallowing a bottle of aspirin. "Schizophrenia," she would later say, "rolls in like a slow fog, becoming imperceptibly thicker as time goes on."

As a coping mechanism, Saks submerged herself in her schoolwork. "Tall, geeky and socially uneasy," as she describes herself then, she lost weight, existing on coffee, cigarettes, cheese sandwiches or bowls of tomato soup.

She said little in class. But Saks' academic papers often floored professors with their insights. While she was still a student, her elegant but troubled mind already worked with the acuity of a practiced academic.

Years later, when she was a Marshall scholar studying philosophy at Oxford University, Saks' disease tightened its grip. She often walked the streets, gesticulating and muttering to herself. But she would not talk to others.

It's wrong to talk. Talking means you have something to say. I have nothing to say. I am nobody, a nothing.

Admitted to a local psychiatric hospital, she insisted she was not sick and refused to take any medications. Then one day, Saks had a revelation: She looked into the mirror. And she recoiled.

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